Thursday, February 28, 2013

George Saunders rules

This is not news. But so far this month I've read Tenth of December, his new collection of stories, and the title story in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. I thought I'd excerpt a few sentences from the latter:
Mr. Grayson, Staff Ornithologist, has recently recalculated and estimates that to accurately approximate the 1865 bird population we'll need to eliminate a couple hundred orioles or so. He suggests using air guns or poison.
This is the sort of detail that seems ridiculous and true at the same time, which Saunders' stories are full of to bursting. It's amazing how easily humor and cruelty coexist in his work.

A little (sort of) tangent:

When I visited Vicksburg National Military Park in 2011, I remember looking out over the valley between the Union and Confederate positions. Several bulldozers worked to down extant trees, and a few smoking heaps of wet trees made the entire park smell like wood fire. The valley was a huge, hilly demolition site, mostly dirt. This was the historical preservation project.

That's a bit more prosaic than Saunders' envisioning of preservation, but the idea is the same.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Fidelity" to appear Monday 3/4

"Fidelity," my science fiction short story about a father's relationship to his wife and child, goes out to Daily Science Fiction subscribers on Monday, March 4. Subscription is free, so sign up to have my story emailed to you next Monday (actually, if my emails from DSF are any indication, it will go out at 10pm on Sunday night).

On March 11 the story it will go up on DSF's website, where anyone (including non-subscribers) will be able to read it.

I'm proud of the story. Subscribe to DSF to read it! Or check it out on the 11th when it's online!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Your 2013 Oscars

The monkey appeared for about 10 seconds on screen during E!'s countdown to the red carpet show. Ryan Seacrest did not interview him.

It must require a serious bit of cognitive dissonance to run the monkey-in-a-dress gag immediately before the stars hit the red carpet to be gawked at and criticized for their hairdos.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Halo and endless killing

I spent a large portion of my formative years playing video games. I played a lot of computer games. I played a lot of MUDs, aka Multi-User Dungeons, aka proto-mmorpgs. I played a lot of Counter Strike, and a lot of Diablo II. I played console games. I played Sonic and Tails for the Genesis. I played Mario 64. I played Goldeneye. And, later, I played Halo.

A great part of the desire I have to play modern video games stems from nostalgia for the experiences I had as a kid. Sometimes, that nostalgia gets me into trouble. I posted a while back about how bad Diablo III was.

I'm about halfway through the campaign of the newest Halo game, called Halo 4. That the fourth Halo game is called "Halo 4" suggests a lot that turns out to be true about the game itself: the game is familiar, but doesn't have much imagination. Halo 4 and Diablo III have at least one important thing in common, though they are very different games in gameplay and tone: both games require the player to kill endless numbers of "bad guys." The bad guys are bad in D3 because they're evil, and evil things are bad. The bad guys in H4 are bad for no reason. The bad guys in H4 have to die for the shockingly mundane reason that they are in Master Chief's way.

Diablo III's story is for children, with no traces of moral complexity in its self-righteous butchering of legions of demons. I expected better from H4, but so far haven't found it has any conscience about the souls of the intelligent life forms it demands I send to alien heaven. But even if it did--even if the Master Chief showed some remorse about the aliens he had killed--would that make it better?

In any case, Halo 4 seems like the creation of some perfect sociopathic mind. I play a masked killer wading through the blood of alien species belonging to a highly developed intergalactic society. Why not engage in diplomacy instead? The story of Halo 4 beggars belief. Cortana, Master Chief's artificial intelligence companion, faces rampancy (i.e. confused outbursts of emotional rage [which turns the game's plot into something like: stoic, powerful male seeks to save emotional, helpless female. Hmm...]). Master Chief promises to get Cortana--let me emphasize again that Cortana is not alive--to safety. To do this Master Chief kills thousands of aliens, destroys alien ordnance of incalculable worth, and (I'm guessing) starts a new war between humans and aliens. This is done to save the mind of one artificial intelligence. The question has often been posed: how many foreign lives are worth one American life? In Halo, the question is: how many alien lives are worth the life of one (not actually alive) friend? The answer: aliens have lives? Huh.

There's a line of dialogue near the beginning of the game, right after Master Chief sends his first alien on the Great Journey. Master Chief says: "I thought we had a truce with the covenant." That's the only mention of a possible diplomatic solution to Cortana's problem. Truce, schmuce. Halo 4 is about killing aliens because they're aliens. Why talk when you can shoot? It's much more fun.

I'm playing Halo 4 for nostalgic reasons. But the game doesn't have to treat me like I'm still 15.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


It's been a busy month so far, and the blog has fallen by the wayside. But, soon, I'll again be able feed my hungry audience with my thoughts on important stuff, like what I ate last night and what happened in the Civil War.

In the interim between my last post and this one, I let several important events pass by that might otherwise have ended up as the subject of a post on this blog:

Lincoln's 204th Birthday
The big 204 for Lincoln was last Tuesday. I'll only note here that he's enjoying a bit of a renaissance in popularity, if his name as a search term in google is any indication:

February is typically his most popular month, owing I'm sure to the school assignments kids have to complete around his birthday and President's Day. This latest surge has pushed him past even George Washington, perhaps the final nail in the coffin for Washington's case as Greatest President of All Time.

I watched some more movies
Including: "Take This Waltz," a bad movie with some really good stuff in it; "Zero Dark Thirty," a good movie with some really bad stuff in it (maybe); and "Sound of My Voice," which made me believe in it despite all its problems, not unlike the way the film's protagonist comes to believe in the mysterious cult leader he's ostensibly investigating as a journalist.

I may take a shot at posting fuller thoughts of ZDT soon.

My cat got bigger
And continues to defy conservation of mass by growing even though he poops more than he eats.

Fear not, loyal reader(s?) of this blog. I have not given up. More content to come.

Friday, February 1, 2013

What I read in January

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. There was a lot more and a lot less here than I expected, somehow.

The more: a possible allegory for the American Civil War or reconstruction in the pursuit by the USS Abraham Lincoln of Captain Nemo's Nautilus while most people still think the vessel is a sea unicorn (that is seriously what people think it is); how Captain Nemo withdraws from society instead of trying to improve it with his impossible wealth and talent reads as a precursor to Atlas Shurgged; the obvious comparison to be made between the Nautilus and the white whale in Moby Dick (in Admiral Farragut, commander of the Lincoln, Verne provides an Ahab character).

The less: I expected more of a story. I suppose I haven't read a lot of adventure literature, which is what this is. Each chapter is heavy on explication of some underwater phenomena, either natural or human generated, but quite thin on character and plot advancement. Of course, neither character nor plot advancement is the goal. The goal is fantastical description. And the description is fabulous.

Specials by Scott Westerfeld. I don't know why I go on with this series of books. Specials is the third book in the "Uglies" universe, in which governments mandate most children undergo extreme surgery at age 16 to make them "pretty" and stupid. In Specials, our hero Tally Youngblood has been made into a "special," a surgically-enhanced superhuman oft-described as having "terrible beauty," a not-too-subtle hint that she is something like a god. Tally doesn't really succeed as a character--I'm never sure why I should care about her, or what makes her very special at all. Beyond that, the stunts she pulls and the scrapes she gets out of ring false in a world described as a police state. The book picks up a bit when we (finally) see a bit of society beyond the city Tally was raised in, where Westerfeld gets to do a little more world-building, but the characters remain flat. The final page of the book comes out of nowhere but, by that point, I'd stopped caring.

The Book of Fantasy edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo, and A. Bioy Casares. A collection of 81 classic pieces of short fantastical fiction, many of them very short. Classics of the western tradition mingle with many old eastern stories I had never read before. The stories that have really stayed with me (excluding those I'd read elsewhere first): "The Sentence" by Wu Ch'eng En, about a hunted dragon in dreams. "A Woman Alone with Her Soul" by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, which I might as well quote in its entirety:
A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world: every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.
"The Drowned Giant," by J. G. Ballard, about turning the fantastical into the commonplace. "The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973," by Tor Age Bringsvaerd, about a man who learns all the information he can about that particular day at the expense of all other knowledge. "The Blind Spot," by Barry Perowne, about a playwright who invented and forgot the perfect crime. "Macario" by B. Traven, about a dude who just wants to eat turkey.

The collection took me several months of bedtime reading to get through, but it was well worth it. I'd recommend it to anyone.